Benny Golson and Jim Merod – Whisper Not: The Autobiography of Benny Golson
(Temple University Press, 328 pp., £28.99. Book review by Chris Parker)
‘A life dedicated to jazz’, and an account of it free from ‘vivid recollections of the lapses, degradations, and unfortunate circumstances that often dog talented people’ are promised in Benny Golson’s Introduction to this, his account of an extraordinary career beginning in 1940s Philadelphia and ending in recognition as one of the music’s most respected and influential composers, arrangers and instrumentalists. To this end, he has enlisted the help of Professor of Literature and Humanities Jim Merod, to ‘get this “monster” up off the table and give it the best style possible with his brilliant word-pictures’.
Said ‘word-pictures’ are most effectively deployed in portraits of Golson’s jazz contemporaries, chief among them fellow Philadelphian John Coltrane, the subject of the book’s opening (and most gripping) chapters, but also including Art Blakey (whose Messengers had fresh life and artistic purpose injected into them by Golson), Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Dorham and Lee Morgan. They are also tellingly deployed in memorable and insightful accounts of Golson’s work in Hollywood and for TV series such as M*A*S*H, his composing of such classics as Killer Joe, The Jazz March and Whisper Not, and his activities as an arranger for the likes of Peggy Lee and (helping Tex Briscoe) Diana Ross.
These are the positives flagged up in the Introduction, and the book does indeed contain numerous nuggets of great good sense on subjects such as ballads (‘speed demonstrates dexterity, an inconsequential skill on a ballad … exercises and scales, nonmusical gymnastics, find no sanctuary there’), racism (a formative experience was hearing his Uncle Robert berated by a white policeman for calling him ‘Bud’ – ‘We were subordinated to white power, capricious but fearsome’), and artistic development (‘If I played only what I knew, what I was comfortable with, then I would continue playing only what I knew . Comfort, deriving from self-protection, is a selfish mistress. It makes a musician phobic about mistakes’).
Also flagged up in the book’s blurb, however, is its chief fault: ‘Golson’s exceptional life [is] presented episodically rather than chronologically’. Thus, it begins with its best-written and most interesting account, the aforementioned relationship with Coltrane, and fascinatingly details Golson’s growing appreciation of jazz via exposure to the bebop experiments taking place at Minton’s etc., but it does not maintain this standard through its subsequent chapters, which (under part titles such as ‘Great People’, ‘Amazing Friendships’ and ‘Icons’) attempt to gather together in a coherent sequence Golson’s memories of the likes of Charles Mingus, Oscar Pettiford, Steven Spielberg et al. Merod has clearly been given a mass of somewhat diverse material, and done his best to arrange it sensibly, but the overriding impression towards the end of the book is one of arbitrariness. This is a pity, because when Whisper Not is good, it is very good – thoughtful, eloquent, nuanced – and anyone interested in jazz in its heyday will be fascinated and gripped by much of what Golson has to say, but the book overall is too often flawed by inconsistency to be the true classic it often promises to be.